All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 1995

In Defense of Advertising: Arguments from Reason, Ethical Egoism, and Laissez-Faire Capitalism

A Philosophical Defense of Marketing

As an economist, I was hesitant to review a book about marketing written from a philosophical perspective. However, advertising is fundamental to economic activity and I agree fully with the author that advertising must be understood as a “rational, moral, productive, and above all benevolent institution of laissez-faire capitalism.”

Jerry Kirkpatrick defends advertising by employing the philosophical contributions of Ayn Rand and the economic theories of Ludwig von Mises. Facts, figures, case studies, and quotations spice up what is otherwise a theoretical attack against the critics and opponents of advertising.

I found myself chuckling at the book’s beginning description of various criticisms of advertising in which virtually all the evils in society are directly traceable to advertising. While amusing, these views are all too pervasive. The very latest antagonist to emerge is Earl Shorris, a former advertising executive-turned-fiction writer and muckraker. In his latest book, A Nation of Salesmen: The Tyranny of the Market and the Subversion of Culture, Mr. Shorris blames advertising for the destruction of such things as our world, our humanity, our nobility, our reason, and our minds.

Mr. Kirkpatrick’s philosophical defense of advertising is explicitly objectivist or Randian. While I am no expert in this area, his presentation is clear and seems correct in all fundamental aspects. I only question how far into objectivism one needs or wants to go in order to make a defense of advertising? For example, while I might agree with both the author and Ludwig von Mises on the underlying relationship between early Christianity and capitalism, I question the wisdom of raising this issue where it can neither help make his point nor provide an opportunity for full and fair exploration of the issue.

The author provides a convincing discussion on the charge of subliminal advertising in the marketplace. He also addresses the charge that persuasive advertising “creates” needs. The natural controls on deceptive advertising are also presented as an effective counterargument to the critics of advertising. He concludes that honesty sells and that fraud is the only thing that should be against the law.

The author combines his knowledge of marketing with Randian philosophy and Misesian economics to create a truly powerful and compelling case for advertising. The general reader will benefit from the author’s ability to distill the criticisms of advertising and his responses to them to their most fundamental form while the specialist in marketing, economics, and philosophy will gain a working knowledge of the other disciplines as they relate to advertising.

There is at least one downside of mixing Austrian economics and Randian philosophy—the possible confusion of the terms objective and subjective. Objectivism is a subjective field in which all relevant values are held to be objective while economics is supposed to be an objective study in which all relevant values are considered subjective. I am almost certain that the next generation of libertarians would appreciate a less muddled assembly of terminology.

The author has a clearer notion of the economics of advertising than many economists. His accurate presentation of economics and the methods and views of schools of economic thought is more than adequate. If one is interested in a more in-depth examination of the economics of advertising, Advertising and the Market Process by Robert Ekelund and David Saurman should be consulted. However, for those who seek to engage the accusers of capitalism, In Defense of Advertising is worthwhile reading. []

Dr. Thornton is the O.P. Alford III Assistant Professor of Economics and Coordinator of Academic Affairs of the Ludwig von Mises Institute at Auburn University.

  • Mark Thornton is an American economist of the Austrian School. He has written on the topic of prohibition of drugs, the economics of the American Civil War, and the "Skyscraper Index". He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

  • Jerry Kirkpatrick is Professor Emeritus of International Business and Marketing, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona